Monday, 6 January 2014

Top Ten Films Of 2013

This list represents the best new films I saw throughout the year and includes feature films that received a UK general release between January 1st and December 31st 2013, on any format, but doesn’t include festival-only showings

It also includes the 11-20 spots, for context:

20. The Paperboy (dir: Lee Daniels)
19. Behind The Candelabra (dir: Steven Soderbergh)
18. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (dir: Declan Lowney)
17. Cloud Atlas (dirs: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
16. Blue Jasmine (dir: Woody Allen)
15. Mud (dir: Jeff Nichols)
14. Beyond The Hills (dir: Cristian Mungiu)
13. Byzantium (dir: Neil Jordan)
12. Side Effects (dir: Steven Soderbergh)
11. This Is The End (dirs: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)

The Kings Of Summer (dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-age tale that feels strangely unselfconscious in spite of a central premise that uproots it from the real world and a cast of characters that is peppered with deadpan quirks. At times it feels slightly like Wes Anderson, but without the visual tics; like Max Fischer from Rushmore joining The Goonies. What impresses most is the script which flits from raucous to tender without missing a beat. While Nick Offerman’s father character steals the film’s best lines, it is unquestionably the teenagers’ story and their development throughout the film is nuanced but streamlined. It looks beautiful with a hazy, romanticised aesthetic that fits the film’s title. For such a slight, seemingly familiar plot it feels pleasantly fresh and wry enough to punt the whole subgenre out of the doldrums.

Nebraska (dir: Alexander Payne)

The film’s hook – a crotchety old man travels with his son to collect on a misleading windfall – has all the hallmarks of a saccharine journey of discovery. By casting Bruce Dern as the old man, Alexander Payne neatly sidesteps the obvious and the sugary in his usual barbed fashion. It cleverly wrong-foots with each development as it lulls the audience into expecting homespun wisdom and sentimentality but delivers a darkly acerbic road trip that resolutely isn't a quest for redemption. That is not to say its characters are entirely one-dimensional assholes but they're not wholly loveable either. Dern is ably supported by an un-showy, but touching, performance from Will Forte as his son and Payne delivers his best film since Election. As craggy and unpolished as its protagonist, the script is prickly and sour without leaving a bad taste. The Straight Story with sharp edges.

The Selfish Giant (dir: Clio Barnard)

Taking an Oscar Wilde fairy tale and adapting it as a Kes-like tale of grim Northern English youth, it retains the fable-like air but imbues it with contemporary social commentary. With a washed-out palette of greys and a backdrop of industrial decay, it should be depressing but by viewing its characters and their world with a warm-hearted, humanistic approach Clio Barnard ensures there are shafts of light amid the greyness. The two child actors at the fore give a natural, powerful spirit to their characters and a seam of coal-black humour in their relationship with each other means the semi-improvised script is constantly lively. There is a lyricism to the bleakness and it makes the potentially distressing events of the film that bit more tolerable.

The Act Of Killing (dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)

Unlike any other film – fiction or otherwise – this year, this harnesses the power of cinema in unlikely ways and presents a disturbing insight into a nation’s recent past. By giving Indonesian death squad leaders the opportunity to tell their own stories and put them up on the big screen, we are shown both the horrors of genocide and the disturbing banality of those who perpetrated it. Through matter-of-fact interviews and re-enactments, what ends up on screen is surreal, provocative, insensitively lionising and ultimately distressing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer stands back and lets his subjects draw their own fate but what he assembles from that freedom is sickeningly potent. There is no guiding hand to lead you through the ethical morass and Oppenheimer leaves the audience to make up their own minds about what his subjects’ motivation and revelations, but it culminates in a scene that is haunting and irrepressibly vivid.

Zero Dark Thirty (dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

Zero Dark Thirty is compelling, thought-provoking cinema that also serves as a fully functional military procedural thriller about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden – even with the outcome of said mission being widely known. It is effortlessly paced as it zips through ten years worth of plot without feeling too full or too slight. It eschews the jingoistic in favour of questioning the morality, and the human impact, of modern warfare. It is anchored by strong performances, which is quite a feat because most characters, with the exception of Jessica Chastain’s Maya, don't have much screen time in order to establish themselves as fully rounded. It manages to portray a sense of urgency but plays out at a measured pace and, in spite of a near-160 minute runtime and without a wealth of action scenes to fall back on, the nerve-jangling tension is sustained. Maintaining the hi-octane and the cerebral alongside each other is difficult but this feels expertly balanced.

Stories We Tell (dir: Sarah Polley)

Broadly concerning her own personal history and, in particular, her mother who died when she was eleven, there was every chance Sarah Polley’s probing documentary could have been ego-driven folly. Instead, Stories We Tell is so much more than a self indulgent exercise. It is an attempt to cope with the subjectivity of our memories and that even the same story takes on a different meaning depending on the perspective of the narrator. The warmth that resonates from the screen makes her family’s bonds seem clear and universal, but it is invigorating because it is never mawkish. It plays with the documentary form in a conscious attempt to remind the viewer of the disconnect between stories and truth. It is at once both heartbreaking and life affirming. There is intrigue, there are surprises, there is tragedy, there are secrets and ultimately there is humanity. By playing with our perceptions throughout, Polley proves herself an adept, thought provoking documentarian. This filmic post-mortem has a powerful structure that questions the nature of empirical truth and showcases the beautiful intricacy of normality, whatever that might be.

A Field In England (dir: Ben Wheatley)

A mesmeric, dark and intriguing quasi-horror that is partly in the mould of The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General but also, admirably, its own thing. It leaves motivations and the answers to the questions it poses disconcertingly vague. Reece Shearsmith holds it together with a chilling and tragic dramatic turn. He is astonishing here and the scene where he emerges from the tent in a manic fugue state is forcefully unsettling beyond belief. From cinematography to score, it is filled with flourishes that are liable to make every viewing an even richer experience. It is among the most extraordinary looking films of recent years and it builds like a crescendo to a symphony of triumphant editing and sound design. Just the little touches like having the overdubbed dialogue during the wind scenes intoned as whispers is simple and effective. Ben Wheatley cements his reputation as a purveyor of the darker side of the British psyche and his one-location English Civil War film takes a pinch of influence from this and that to create a quintessentially British headfucker.

Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino)

As close as adult-oriented films get to event cinema, Django Unchained is a juicy historical revenge fantasy with a strong central turn from Jamie Foxx, a warm supporting turn from Christoph Waltz and a delicious villain in Leonardo DiCaprio. While it might be nice to have the more considered Quentin Tarantino back in the near future, the joy of this is in just how full-on and unrestrained it is. What Tarantino likes, he does - and here it works. It is structurally sound and with an impressive balance of action and character development, it is an entirely pleasure-focused slice of pulp. It could certainly do with some trimming but it does not drag. In every section of the rambling plot there is something to admire from the performances, to the set design to little nods and winks which hint at underlying Tarantino preoccupations.

Before Midnight (dir: Richard Linklater)

Before Midnight is quite an achievement in its own right as well as in its position as the latest chapter of a decades-spanning romance. The format and tonal changes here both within this film and compared to the previous two entries in the saga are handled sublimely in such a way as to turn the series completely on its head. Romantic idealism is replaced with cynical reality and yet it does not feel cold. After spending two films rooting for Jesse and Celine to get together, the boldness of this film in pulling away the rug from that cosiness could so easily have backfired. In showing just how far Celine and Jesse have come since that night in Vienna nearly twenty years ago or that day in Paris nine years later, the richness of the creations comes to the fore. They are no longer just figureheads for romantic idealism but fully fleshed humans with a mess of conflicting emotions that are not always endearing. The venal, embittered arguments might be tough going but they are entirely necessary for the characters. This assures the three 'Befores' a place in the finest movie trilogies; the emotional movements throughout the three are in perfect harmony.

Frances Ha (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Shot in crisp black and white, Frances Ha is a love letter to the films of French New Wave but firmly rooted in contemporary urban comedy. The narrative is a series of vignettes – punctuated by the eponymous Frances’ various changes of address - with a through line of the refreshingly blunt relationship between Frances and her BFF Sophie. It taps into a zeitgeist-like reclaiming of the female arrested development subgenre with shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls. Frances herself is a charming mess and Greta Gerwig is astonishing in the lead role. She imbues Frances with an appealing fragility that wins over in spite of her foibles and trail of mistakes, with many of the film’s best scenes arising from conversational awkwardness and Frances’ relative lack of introspection. Frances’ character arc is handled in a way that is in keeping with the knowing, arch tone of the rest of the film and doesn’t jar because it stems naturally from a well written character. It manages to make someone who dances so close to being infuriating loveably endearing. This is American comedy filmmaking with a distinctly European sensibility and a wonderfully observed and poignant character study with underplayed dramatic weight.